Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving

Postcard 10 from the Arab world – A female solo traveller

I have now settled into my solo life in the Saudi Arabia. I desperately miss my husband and children but I am able to Skype with them daily and my children (aged 5 and 7) have become conversationalists and for the first time ever we enjoy talking to one another rather than me being frustrated as they fight over the computer or they quickly lose interest or they vie for attention from my husband while I languish on the other side of the world. My husband is bearing up well. It’s Spring time at home and he very sweetly emails to me photos of our different coloured irises as the open. He also sends me daily photos of our gorgeous children. Apparently the lawn (that I normally mow weekly) is a jungle, the lounge is covered in clean clothes and the house is a big mess but all 3 of them (and the guinea pigs) are eating really well with their grain and sugar free diets and my children are not only going to school but also to all of their usual extra-curricular activities, play dates, birthday parties, a series of Springtime fairs and a rally to change Australia’s policy towards refugees. What a man!

A shared feast of a side of lamb on  rice

A shared feast of an oven-roasted side of lamb on rice with slivered almonds and sultanas. We sat together on the floor and ate with our hands. It was delicious!

This week I went to an expat compound to use the swimming pool. Once there I discovered that bikinis are not allowed (and that’s what I wear for swimming). Fortunately my colleague lent me his (XXL) tshirt and I wore that over my bikini. It was a white tshirt so it was entirely see-through when wet. It was also enormous so it was quite difficult to swim but no-one commented on my attire and it was entirely worth it to get some exercise for once! I was amazed that each time I wished to cross the street inside the compound all of the motorists stopped for me! Everywhere else I take my life into my hands each time that I even consider crossing the road!

Last night I had a wonderful dinner at an international hotel (where the rules against mixing of genders are relaxed) with 5 urbane, kind, intelligent and interesting Arab men from my field. The food was amazing but the company was better. I had olive tapanade then miso soup followed by hammour (a delicious local fish) with shredded potato and garlic with saffron, sultanas and cashew nuts, and I finished with deep fried camel’s milk ice cream. I wanted to try camel’s milk while here even though I was hesitant because I had heard that it can make Europeans sick. I ate less than 1/2 of the dessert and woke at 4 am (as always with the call to prayer) with churning and intermittent purging that has persisted all day. I suspect it was the camel’s milk…

We had enjoyed a long, robust and impassioned discussion about the geopolitical position of the Middle East/Isis and Ukraine/Russia, the possibility of WWIII, the recent political history of Egypt and Algeria (in this discussion my reading of The Arabs: A History was very helpful!), the bombing of Hiroshima and more. I observed with pleasure the way that these cultured men listened respectfully to one another (and me) without interrupting even if they were bursting to offer a dissenting view.

Inevitably in this region the conversation turned to bad driving behaviour! We laughed and shook our heads and shared stories of:

  • doing a u-turn from the far outside lane and crossing 4 lanes of traffic to do that (I see that daily);
  • children walking/jumping/climbing inside cars driving at over 100 kph, even hanging out of the window or sun roof of the car (sadly I see that daily too);
  • drivers nudging their cars into the car in front of them that dares to stop at a red light;
  • drivers making 5 lanes out of 3;
  • drivers mounting the footpath;
  • the difficulty of crossing the road as a pedestrian and drivers who choose to stop for a pedestrian being bullied by drivers behind them to keep driving;
  • drivers using their phones while crossing 3 lanes of traffic to turn onto a sidestreet.

There were some entertaining stories including a driver who took his car onto the verge at 45 degrees to the road at over 100kph around a corner. My dining companion clapped sarcastically at the other driver as he went past but the other driver took it literally and was pleased as punch at his driving prowess.

Today I was sucked into a scam. I was walking towards my apartment (not feeling too well) when an Arab woman dressed entirely in black with only her eyes showing came up and asked me if I speak Arabic (in Arabic) to which I said no. She then said in English that she’s a mother and needed to borrow money to get a taxi home, that she had no money and no other way to get home. I considered what a terribly difficult situation that would be in a place with no public transport and felt pressured because she stood very close to me. I offered her $30 USD equivalent but she said she needed $60 and that she would pay me back tomorrow. I knew that I wouldn’t see the money again but decided that if I was in her position I would want someone to help me. So, I gave her the money. A man then came rushing out of the coffee shop next door and confronted her in Arabic. She took off across the road, weaving through 6 lanes of traffic in her abaya which is not easy! Meanwhile the man accosted me for giving her money. I said that she said she needed it and that we must help people who need help. He said that she runs the same scam all day everyday and that I shouldn’t have given her any money. He became even more cross when I told him how much I had given her. All of this awkward time I was watching her on the other side of the road and decided to try confronting her, so I carefully wove my way through the traffic and she took flight and headed into a busy area. I followed her but lost her in a sea of black clad women of identical stature, all showing only their eyes. It’s just as well because I am terrible at confrontation! I headed back towards my apartment and this time a different Arab man from the coffee shop interrogated me. In the end he said,

I see you everyday American/English woman (I’m Australian) and my colleague he tell me that you give $60 to that crazy woman. You should not give her money, she does this everyday.

I said: That would have been useful information to know before I gave her the money

He said: Don’t think about it anymore. You did a kind thing and you should feel good about it. No more thinking. Just say Alhamdulillah (Praise God) and forget it.

I smiled, shrugged and said: Alhamdulillah then walked away.

I came here for this extended stay on my own with considerable trepidation but I have found myself enjoying most of my time here. My colleagues are kind, interesting and funny and we make a lot of silly jokes throughout the day so there is a lot of laughter and we are learning to work together. They are teaching me some new Arabic vocabulary and we are learning about each others cultures. As we get to know each other my colleagues occasionally almost forget that I am a woman and today one of them almost invited me to watch a game of football with them on the weekend but swallowed the invitation in embarrassment and instead asked if my apartment has the sports channel so that I can watch it alone. I actually have never turned on the tv so I wouldn’t know if it has the channel. One of my attributes is making the most out of any situation and finding pleasure and interest in the everyday, which is intrinsic to the concept of Strategic Consumption. That is really helping me here and I have no need to resort to something as mind-numbing as television.

My other posts so far on this trip:


9 comments on “Postcard 10 from the Arab world – A female solo traveller

  1. Pingback: Postcard 11 from the Arab world – A female solo traveller | strivetoengage

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2014 by in middle east and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
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